The hacking of missing teenager Milly Dowler’s mobile phone was the “final straw in a groundswell of public opinion” against an out-of-control press, the Leveson Inquiry has heard.
Barrister David Sherborne, representing victims of press intrusion at the inquiry, including the Dowler family and the parents of Madeleine McCann, said today future press regulation must be acceptable to the public rather than the industry.
He called for part two of the inquiry – which is to examine the extent of unlawful or improper conduct within News International and other newspaper organisations – to go ahead. Lord Justice Leveson said he had not ruled out continuing with part two, but has said previously proceeding would be difficult with continuing police investigations.
Sherborne gave the example of Bob and Sally Dowler as an example of press malpractice, saying a moment of private grief when the couple retraced the final steps of daughter Milly had been “turned into a photo opportunity” by the News of the World. Bob Dowler was in court today as the closing submission was read.
Sherborne said: “[Aside from the hacking of Milly’s voicemail] what perhaps was less known to those within the inquiry, and brutally shocking, was the way in which their private moment of grief, retracing the last footsteps of their murdered daughter in a impromptu attempt to obtain some form of respite from the public gaze, became a photo opportunity for one newspaper, which was too damn good to resist.”
He urged Prime Minister David Cameron to implement in the inquiry’s recommendations when they are reported in the autumn.
He said: “I say this to Mr Cameron, the public is tired of promise, it’s tired of the politics of popularity over principles – of its elected representatives kowtowing under the influence of the unelected few, which is what the history of media ownership has proved.”
He added: “[If the proposals are ignored] that would be a failure, not just on the Dowler or McCann test, but for the general public, for everyone except the privileged few who are represented here by the core participant media organisations.”
The lawyer said the inquiry had shown a “culture of plausible deniability rather than openness and candour” and this was prevalent across certain sections of the press.
He added: “Sir, I know you are at pains not to say this, but we do: the press is on trial here, and not simply in this room but also out there in the court of public opinion. After all, that is where the demand for this inquiry started, and [the press] know that. Of course they do.
“That is why they’re so scared of what evidence has been heard here, and most importantly, how it will be perceived outside. That is why they’ve employed the megaphone of the pages of their newspapers rather than the serried ranks of lawyers sitting here dutifully, day in, day out, when a particularly egregious examples of misconduct has meant that the best behaviour they’ve tried to present whilst under the microscope of this inquiry has slipped.”
Sherborne said very little of the stories heard in module one – examining the relationship between the press and the public – had not “involved even a hint” of public interest, listing the Dowler and McCann families, Chris Jefferies, the former landlord accused and later clear of the murder of Jo Yeates, and celebrities including actors Sienna Miller and Hugh Grant, as examples of individuals willing to give evidence to the inquiry, with no personal gain.
Anonymous Leveson witness HJK, targeted by press over a relationship with a celebrity, phone hacking victim Mary-Ellen Field, the family of murdered teenager Diane Watson were also mentioned by the lawyer in his closing submission. He referred to the treatment of singer Charlotte Church’s mother – Maria Church – by the News of the World. She was persuaded into giving the newspaper an exclusive story on her mental health issues.
He added: “The News of the World were well aware of her depression, well aware because they’d listened into her messages from her hospital visit when she tried to commit suicide…they not only published the graphic account of her husband’s infidelity, but in an act of the greatest compassion, blackmailed her into giving an interview, making her bare the arms which carried the marks of her self-harming with the promise that this would avoid a far worse follow-up story about her family.”
He said he was concerned it “might be payback time” for those who have to stood up against newspapers at the inquiry, and referred to the statement issued by Associated Newspapers last year, accusing Grant of making “mendacious smears” against the publisher.
He said: “Whatever else may be said about this episode, and there is much more I could say, what it does show is how the press, time and time again, goes on the attack, rubbishing those who run against the gauntlet as a way of instantly deflecting criticism away from itself.
“This culture of intimidation, where people become too afraid to speak out about the press, is not only unhealthy, but is surely as much a curtailment of free speech as anything with the press itself complains about.”